Haiti’s Pronounced Poverty
April 17, 2008, 2:07 pm
Filed under: Food, Poverty | Tags:

(Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

The Haitian people are the most impoverished in the Western Hemisphere and yet, they have largely been forgotten by the core states who see very little geopolitical incentive in helping, except of course, by helping to overthrow Aristides twice. The global food crisis has exposed Haiti’s pronounced underdeveloped and perhaps finally, Haiti will get the attention it needs. International Herald Tribune covers the rapidly increasing poverty that is consuming Haitians.

Hunger bashed in the front gate of Haiti’s presidential palace. Hunger poured onto the streets, burning tires and taking on soldiers and police. Hunger sent the country’s prime minister packing.

Haiti’s hunger, that burn in the belly that so many here feel, has become fiercer than ever in recent days as global food prices spiral out of reach, spiking as much as 45 percent since the end of 2006 and turning Haitian staples such as beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.

Saint Louis Meriska’s children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal two days ago and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, “They look at me and say, ‘Papa, I’m hungry,’ and I have to look away. It’s humiliating and it makes you angry.”

That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis not only is being felt among the poor, but also is eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.

In Cairo, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government. In Burkina Faso and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food riots are breaking out like never before. And in reasonably prosperous Malaysia, the ruling coalition was nearly ousted by disgruntled voters who cited food and fuel hikes as their primary concerns.

“It’s the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” said Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and special adviser to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon. “It’s a big deal, and it’s obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes and I think there’s more political fallout to come.”

Indeed, as it roils developing nations, the spike in commodity prices – the biggest since the administration of Richard Nixon – has pitted the globe’s poorer south against the relatively wealthy north, adding to demands for reform of rich nations’ farm and environmental policies.

But experts say there are few quick fixes to a crisis tied to so many factors, such as strong demand for food from emerging economies like China’s; rising oil prices; and the diversion of food resources to make biofuels.

There are no scripts on how to handle the crisis, either. In Asia, governments are putting in place measures to limit hoarding of rice after some shoppers panicked at price rises and bought up everything they could.

Even in Thailand, which produces 10 million more tons of rice than it consumes and is the world’s largest rice exporter, supermarkets have placed signs limiting the amount of rice shoppers are allowed to buy.

“This is a perfect storm,” President Elias Antonio Saca of El Salvador said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Cancún, Mexico. “How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies, but also the stability of our countries.”

In Asia, if Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia steps down, which is looking increasingly likely amid post-election turmoil within his party, he may be that region’s first high-profile political victim of fuel and food price inflation.

In Indonesia, fearing protests, the government recently revised its 2008 budget, increasing the amount it will spend on food subsidies by 2.7 trillion rupiah, or about $280 million.

“The biggest concern is food riots,” said H.S. Dillon, a former adviser to the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture. Referring to small but widespread protests sparked by a rise in soybean prices in January, he said, “It has happened in the past and can happen again.”

Last month in Senegal, one of Africa’s oldest and most stable democracies, police officers in riot gear beat and used tear gas against people protesting high food prices and later raided a television station that broadcast images of the event.

Many Senegalese have expressed anger at the government of President Abdoulaye Wade for spending lavishly on roads and five-star hotels for an Islamic summit that took place last month while many people are unable to afford rice, fish and cooking oil.

“Why are these riots happening?” asked Arif Husain, senior food security analyst at the World Food Program, which has issued urgent appeals for donations to help the Haitis of the world. “The human instinct is to survive and people are going to do no matter what to survive. And if you’re hungry you get angry quicker. We see that around the world.”

Leaders who ignore the rage do so at their own risk. President René Préval of Haiti appeared to taunt the populace as the chorus of complaints grew. He said if Haitians could afford cellphones, which many do carry, they should be able to feed their families. Then, later, he offered this zinger: “If there is a protest against the rising prices, come get me at the palace and I will demonstrate with you.”

When they came, though, thousands of them full of rage and hunger, he huddled inside and his presidential guards, together with United Nations peacekeeping troops, rebuffed them.

Within days, opposition lawmakers had voted out Préval’s prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, forcing him to reconstitute his government. Fragile in even the best of times, Haiti now walks on the edge, its population and politics both simmering.

“Why were we surprised?” asked Patrick Élie, a Haitian political activist who followed the food riots in Africa earlier in the year and feared they might come to Haiti. “When something is coming your way all the way from Burkina Faso you should see it coming. What we had was like a can of gasoline that the government left for someone to light a match to it.”

The rising prices are altering menus, and not for the better. In India, people are scrimping on milk for their children, and cutting back on luxuries like mutton for Sunday supper. Daily bowls of dal are getting thinner as each bag of lentils is stretched across a few more meals.

Maninder Chand, an auto-rickshaw driver in New Delhi, said his family had given up eating meat altogether for the last several weeks, forgoing the mutton curry they used to treat themselves to on Sundays.

Another rickshaw driver, Ravinder Kumar Gupta, said his wife had stopped seasoning their daily lentils with the usual onion and spices because the price of cooking oil was now out of reach. As vegetarians, the Guptas’ chief source of protein is lentils, and these days, Gupta said, they simply eat bowls of watery, tasteless dal, seasoned only with salt.

On Hafziyah Street in central Cairo, peddlers selling food from behind wood carts bark out their prices. But few customers can afford to buy their fish or chicken, which baked in the hot sun, because of the inflation that has changed how they live and eat. Food prices have doubled in two months.

Ahmed Abul Gheit, 25, sat on a cheap, stained wooden chair by his own pile of rotting tomatoes. “We can’t even find food in this son-of-a-bitch country anymore,” he said, looking over at his friend Sobhy Abdullah, 50. Then raising his hands toward the sky, as if in prayer, he said, “May God take the guy I have in mind.”

Abdullah nodded, knowing full well that the “guy” was President Hosni Mubarak.

The government’s ability to address the crisis is limited, however. Egypt already spends more on subsidies, including gasoline and bread, than on education and health combined. As it struggles to keep up the subsidies, rising prices have eaten deeper into its budgets, and the pocket of average people.

“If all the people rise, then the government will resolve this,” said Raisa Fikry, 50, whose husband receives a pension equal to about $83 a month, as she shopped for vegetables. “But everyone has to rise together. People get scared. But will all have to rise together.”

That is the kind of talk that has promoted the government to treat its economic woes as a security threat, dispatching riot forces with a strict warning that anyone who takes to the streets will be dealt with harshly.

Niger does not need to be reminded that hungry citizens overthrow governments. The country’s first post-colonial president, Hamani Diori, was toppled amid allegations of rampant corruption in 1974 as millions starved during a devastating drought.

More recently, in 2005, it was mass protests in Niamey, the capital of Niger, that made the government sit up and take notice of that year’s food crisis, which was caused by a complex mix of poor rains, locust infestation and market manipulation by traders.

“As a result of that experience the government created a cabinet level ministry to deal with the high cost of living,” said Moustapha Kadi, an activist who helped organize marches in 2005. “So when prices went up this year the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically only consumed by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter, and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”

But the quiet does not last long. And the grumbling in Haiti these days is no longer confined to the stomach. It is now spray painted on walls across the capital and shouted by demonstrators.

The outrage has been manipulated by Haiti’s political spoilers, those who profit from the country’s chaos. In recent days, Préval has patched together a response, using international aid money and price reductions by importers to cut the price of a sack of sugar by about 15 percent and trimming the salaries of some top officials. But those are considered temporary measures.

The real solutions will take years. Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself. Haitians need jobs other than pushing wheelbarrows or scrounging scrap metal for pennies. Outside investment is the key, although that requires stability and not the sort of widespread looting and violence that the Haitian foot riots have fostered.

Most of the poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry. In the sprawling slum of Haiti’s Cité Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. “Take one,” she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. “You pick. Just feed them.”


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